The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait: Interpretations

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  • Topic: Arnolfini Portrait, Erwin Panofsky, Jan van Eyck
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  • Published : December 14, 2011
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Jan van Eyck’s work, The Arnolfini Portrait, is a famous piece of Flemish portraiture with a lively history of interpretation (Hall xviii). Most interpretations of the work hinge upon the symbolism found in the iconography of the work, while others rely upon the presumption that the work is nothing but masterfully rendered naturalism, while still others apply various modern art history methodologies. In this paper I will provide a brief survey of the leading interpretations and methods that have been applied to the Arnolfini Portrait. One cannot review the analysis and historiography of the Arnolfini Portrait without encountering some sort of rehearsal of Erwin Panofsky’s reading of the work in his book Early Netherlandish Painting. Panofsky’s reading of the painting marked the beginning of allegorical interpretation for the work and became the launching point from which other art historians and critics started in crafting their own allegorical interpretations.

The standard allegorical interpretation inspired by Panofsky studies the iconology of the portrait. The dog standing between the couple, for instance, is interpreted to be either a symbol of fidelity in the marriage (“Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait”), or as an symbol of erotic sexual tension (Adams). The solitary burning candle in the chandelier above the couple is seen as the “all seeing wisdom of God”. The convex mirror behind the couple is also seen as a symbol of the all seeing eye of God. An ornamental sculpture on the rear bed post is interpreted as the image of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth, suggesting fertility in the marriage. This theme is repeated in the still life depictions of the oranges on the table and window sill behind the male subject, as fruit is linked with fertility. Still others interpret the fruit to be a symbol of innocence at the beginning of marriage. The two pairs of discarded shoes are commonly believed to be symbolic of the bed chamber being...
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